Sunday, 23 July 2017

Bastille Day Cooking With Tessa Kiros: A Cookbook Review

It has almost become a cliche to speak of the wonders of French food. In the cooking world it is held up as a benchmark, technique to strive for, flavours so refined there is no question of it's place amongst the top cuisines in the world. Looking at my recipe indexing system Eat Your Books I had over 5000 French recipes to choose from this Bastille Day. The wonders of buttery pastry and creamy sauces danced in my mind vying for top billing. Yet with the plethora before me I decided to take a slight detour this Bastille Day and follow the French threads that have woven their way across the globe over the last four hundred or so years.

My guide on this journey through time and taste was Tessa Kiros. With more than a dozen cookbooks to her name she is a trusty advisor. The book is Provence to Pondicherry a deep dive into the food of France both at home and faraway.

It was the travel photography and scrapbook style that originally attracted me to this book but as I read the story beyond the pictures I was drawn into the history of the East India Trading Company, colonisation and settlement and how the intermingling of cultures can create a whole new cuisine.

As the title suggests the book begins in Provence and it sets the groundwork for whetting the appetite for French fare. So many iconic French dishes originated in Provence and Tessa brings classics like Bouillabaisse, Daube De Boeuf and Tarts both sweet and savoury. What strikes me about the chapter is that is is all about the produce and Tessa's tales of driving to Provence to explore the markets and savor the flavours makes me lament the limitations of the isolation of Australia.

From Provence the tale heads off shore with the trading companies that in the 1600's spread French tendrils far and wide. We first head to Guadeloupe, an island that despite my predilection for globes, maps and atlas's I still had to hunt through the Caribbean region to pinpoint. Despite the books visual disconnect  taking you as far away from France as possible (the palm lined white sandy beaches are in no way reminiscent of the French Riviera and the women in brightly coloured dresses don't reflect the muted tones of the Parisian inhabitants) the food speaks a different story. It tells of the French settlement in 1635 followed by the African slaves the French bought in to work the plantations and later the Indian population from Pondicherry coming for work after the abolishment of slavery. The intermingling of cultures has created a fusion of cuisines that Tessa presents all facets of. The French influenced ratatouille and bouillon, the Indian curry's and the Creole BBQ's. 

It was this chapter that bought me my Bastille Day dish "Madame Clotilde's Court-Bouillon De Poisson". The smells of my 2 kilo red snapper simmering away did little to take me away from winter with the temperatures that night dropping as low as minus eight but Tessa's anecdotes of local picnics on the beach helped ease the pain just a little as I let my mind wonder to the warmth of the Caribbean. 

From the Caribbean we head to Vietnam. A part of the French Empire from 1886 until 1954 the connection between the two cuisines is undeniable. Tessa brings us Banh Mi, the perfect blending of cultures these French Baguettes are filled equally with flavours from both cultures. the Terrine's and Pate's of France and the Coriander, Mint and Chilli's of Vietnam. There is also dishes like Bo Sot Vang, a stew that was my first cook-up from this book. With the beef cooked in red wine and accompanied by potatoes and carrots this dish at first seems to be in line with a French Daube but the introduction of fish sauce, chilli, star anise, ginger and cinnamon it becomes apparent that this French dish is wearing Vietnamese clothing. The combination is to the elevation of the overall dish. The funky fish flavour goes surprisingly well with the wine and beef and the spices add a depth that is often lacking in the more subtle western stews.

The chapter on Pondicherry struck me as very Un-French. At first I was unsure of it's place in the book. The recipes are very typically Indian from dal, currys and spice mixes to chapati, kulfi and dosa. But this resistance to fusion with the French cuisine speaks a story in itself. Tessa brings to light the fact that although Pondicherry became the administrative and cultural centre for the East India Trading Company and the main port for all the French territories on the east coast it was a city very much divided, literally. The French were ensconced in their French Quarter physically separated from the Tamil population by a canal stocked with crocodiles. And whilst the Tamil population worked as servants in the French quarter there was little blending of the cultures. Despite the lack of French influence the Indian food presented here delicious. The Pondicherry Chicken is a good place to start, not too spicy and not difficult it is a good recipe for a weeknight.

On to La Reunion, an island in the Indian Ocean claimed by France in 1642. Previously uninhabited Tessa tells us this island is now a "beautiful melange of African, Indian, Malagasy, European, French, Chinese and more." The recipes reflect this melange with Chinese style dumplings, sausage stews, Creole curry's, sorbet with tamarind and creme brulee with passionfruit. Tessa piqued my interest in the remote island and I took a wonder on Google Street View to get a better feel for it. The mountainous jungle-like interior leads down onto stunning white beaches, there are vendors selling tropical fruits from shacks and towering boulders sheltering sun baking tourists. I can see why the French claimed it as their own.

Tessa finally brings us back to where it all began with the last chapter on Normandy. The location where the ships set off for the New World in the 1600's and a place where French cuisine and coastal delights merge. The recipes are primarily seafood based with oysters, scallops, mussels, clams, and prawns being treated with traditional French techniques. Tessa says "I feel greedy in Normandy. The food is satisfying to me on a deep level. Maybe it's the earthy roundedness of the ingredients that feel so well looked after".

Madame Clotilde's Court-Bouillon De Poisson as cooked by me. I had to improvise a little on this recipe and I could only get 1 large 2kg Red Snapper and not the two small 500g Red Snapper's the recipe called for. So I doubled the ingredients and for the final cooking step I had to cook it in the oven an I did not have a stove top dish large enough to take this baby. I even picked up the serving dish at an antique store to go with the fish as I didn't have a platter this large. 

Originally posted on Sunday, 23 July 2017 by